The Dutch rise to wealth and prestige growing out of colonial expansion, Rembrandt, Reformation, and global trade of the 16th and 17th centuries was fading out when Napoleon came to power and the French period began. While much could be said about the transition that flooded through the country as a whole, the Groningen province villages were incredibly unique. This province birthed a massive exodus to the United States.
The village province of Groningen is similar to American counties. While there was and still is an urban city of Groningen close by, several rural villages freckle the agricultural countryside that date back centuries: Zandeweer, Uithuizen, Uithuizermeeden, Rottum, Usquert, among several others. The days are often overcast, cool, and temperate. These villages are several miles apart but close enough that families would relocate over their lifetimes or send their children to find work in the nearby villages. The landscape is flat, with ancient, powerful windmills rising against the gray horizon. Located on the most northeast point of the country, the province sinks to meet with the Waal Sea to the north and Germany and Denmark to the east. These lowland villages were heavily written about by Paping. In his research, he refers to the region as the Groningen clay province.
The agricultural farmland of the Netherlands can be split into three main areas by soil type: sand, peat, and clay. After centuries of building up the soggy, stagnant acreage with peat digging, water-lifting mills, and dikes, the land was fit for greater settlement. The Groningen province villages and borgs (farm castles) were built and settled on the rich clay soil; some still stand from as early as the 14th century. The borgs were constructed in the Middle Ages to store and house their wealth in crops and create strong fortification against invaders and thieves. They were profitable and successful during the Dutch golden years into the 18th century. Even early industrialization did not immediately impoverish the farm villages that were tucked away in their own isolated domain. In fact, they were so secluded that they remained stable for a relative while. It was the urban centers of the Netherlands that were first impacted by the industrialization of the world in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Tjarks Hindriks Kremer was named after both his mother and his father. Tjarks was his mother’s maiden name, Hindriks was his father’s first name. Tjarks was born and baptized in the midst of the French period in the small village of Zandeweer, 1808. He was one of nine recorded children, all of whom (brothers and sisters) carried their father’s name as their middle name, a Dutch tradition which also indicated legitimacy. In fact, some of his sisters even had similar first names: Lisobeth, Lizabeth, and Elisabeth. Were they close friends?
Surnames of the peasant class were recorded with more regularity in the region due to the French influence. The old traditions and ties of the past were crumbling and hastily rebuilt during the French Revolution, spilling over into the Netherlands at the turn of the new century. Church and state were beginning to untangle, which had both positive and negative effects on individual and family life. After the late Middle Ages churches were no longer the sole recorders of family line and history, but civil records were required under the new government, making birth, marriage, resident, and death records more widely available. While the French period was one of decline from the previous Dutch glory, there were benefits. Civil records were one of them.
Tjark married Jantje Kornelis van der Til; she was born in 1813 in the Groningen province village of Rottum. Their parents were of the older, pre-Revolution generation of Dutch farmhands and live-in servants. Both Tjark and Jantje, just five years apart, had relocated to Uithuizermeeden with their families for work and met there. As unskilled workers they scoured for employment on a day by day basis: tilling the ground, pulling weeds, and bailing hay. In love at 19 and 24 years of age, they married on November 9, 1832. The modern mind often assumes teenage marriages were common in all cultures of previous ages, however, the Dutch are known for being a practical and frugal people and the 19th century was no exception but rather facilitated this trait. It was actually becoming more and more common for individuals to put off marriage until financial stability of some kind materialized. And yet, Tjarks married his bride when they were incredibly young, even for the era.
Live-in servants in the villages were contracted on a yearly basis, from May to May. Oftentimes, peasant marriages occurred in May or June, directly after contracts were completed. However, the fact that Tjarks and Jantje married in November may tell us that Jantje did not have a contracted position for the year, which is consistent with the life of day laborers. Day laborers were different than farmhands; farmhands were contracted for lengths of time, creating more stability. As their title indicates, day laborers were lower than farmhands and only given work on a daily basis–work could dry up spontaneously and they could find work only seasonally at best. It may have been that Tjarks and Jantje had more regular work in their earlier years, but it is doubtful, and after their marriage evidence does not seem to support this.
Another bit of data also signals the reason why Tjark and Jantje married in November versus waiting until spring: Jantje gave birth to their first child, a son, on April 7, 1833 after being married five months. Dutch marriage records of the time show statistically that it was quite common for couples to rush to marry after finding themselves with child. If a female day laborer or servant was found pregnant they often lost their employment or were not considered hireable, which likely happened in Jantje’s case either before or shortly after she and TJark were married, tightening their purse strings even further.
Upon little Hindriks birth they quickly added several more children in the 1830s and 40s: Kornelis, Martje, Aafke, and Tamme. As the industrial period continued to shift the Dutch economy, the Kremers were living and working with a family of five young children–and then the fierce agricultural crisis hit the Groningen province villages, known as the “hungry 40s”. Crop failure due to crop disease caused widespread hunger, extreme poverty, and sickness. Day laborers before the crop failure were suffering from poverty-stricken circumstances as it was, because food prices were soaring while their wages remained sluggish and static. There was a growing demand for agricultural produce across the globe, and the Dutch farm owners subsequently became very wealthy. In addition, industrial goods were cheap, so the products and tools that farmers procured were inexpensive while their profits rose. Increasingly, the farm community began to fracture as the farmers rose in status and ceased to work with and among their servants and laborers. Borgs were once built on a close-knit community structure; in house servants would live among, take their meals with, and learn from the farmer family almost like an adopted member. Tjarks and Jante’s own parents would have understood this structure first hand. But by the mid 1800’s, the barrier between the classes grew and this was no longer the case. Live-in servants became less and less popular with farmers as they distanced their families from the low-class employees under their care. Understandably, this had sacramental repercussions as individuals and families of differing stations were isolated from one another’s lives and ceased to understand each other.
Day laborers were spending approximately 80% of their earnings on food alone. Many could only afford to rent cramped, sparse homes rather than own them. They had small plot gardens in which they grew their own basic staples: peas, potatoes, and other root vegetables, along with the possibility of raising a couple of sheep or a cow for added resource. These were destitute people who relied heavily on potatoes as the bulk of their diet until the famine struck, which drew them into dire straits. They wore the same clothes day to day, including klompen, the traditional, rough hewn wooden clogs of the period and region, which withstood the mud and muck of farm work and harsh winters. Without support or shock absorption klompen were punishing to the feet, but the Dutch stuffed them with straw for added warmth and barrier.
When crop failure hit, those who were the poorest were struck with starvation, disease, and in some instances, suicide. Tjark Hindriks Kremer was just 37 years old when he passed away in 1846, during the height of the potato famine of 1845-1847. How and why did this occur? He died in June, proving he did not die from lack of fuel and heat in the winter, but may have been suffering from starvation or illness such as tuberculosis or malaria, which were common during this time. Perhaps there was an accident; possibly he was in despair. In any case, Jantje was a single mother at the age of 32 and her children ranged from 13 to 2 years old during the most vulnerable period of the region and country’s recorded history. Previously, farmers and even the poorest donated regularly to local welfare relief with the understanding that as they helped their neighbors around them, they would also benefit from such charity if they themselves were ever in need. Yet, as the effects of the shortage spread, families were reduced to beggarly conditions and there was simply not enough relief to go around. Ninety-one percent of the province are recorded as Calvinist, and Reformation churches attempted to relieve the destitute, though members were helped first and then aid often ran out. To cope, it is certain that Jantje had to send Hindrik and his brother Kornelis, ages 13 and 11, to work on farms to keep the family alive.
Their daughter, Aafke, had been born in Usquert, another small village. This continues to indicate that the Kremers split up or traveled several miles by cart or foot, spreading to adjoining farms just to make ends meet. After her father’s tragic death, it is likely young Aafke worked as a live in servant cleaning and mending, a job that would have given a small but steady income as well as food and shelter that her mother could not easily provide. However, if she was a day laborer only she would have weeded farm fields in the spring and found steady harvest work during the later months. Aafke’s mother remarried after her father’s early death, so she may have been expected to forge her own way, especially because she remained single throughout her twenties. However, Jantje passed away in 1870 at the age of 57, a normal life expectancy of the Dutch during the nineteenth century, leaving Aafke and her siblings without parents.
Nearby, Thomas Pieters Dam was born in Farmsum in 1815, and Jantje Sebes Neijenhuis was born in Bierum in 1819, contemporaries of the Kremers. They married in Jante’s home village of Bierum in January of 1839, but many of their children were born in Uithuizermeeden. The farming villiage of Uithuizermeeden was known during the difficult crop failure to be one of the only villages of security where the farmers hired day laborers most of the year, ensuring that workers would stay in the area when they needed them through the planting, maintenance, and harvesting seasons. This could be why Thomas and Jantje moved to Uithuizermeeden: to find stability in a volatile economy of shrinking resource.
Then, in 1871, Aafke Kremer found herself pregnant. She was unmarried, and the knowledge of who fathered her child has been buried as a secret with her. Was he a soldier who came to the area and left? Was he in love with Aafke but his family disapproved of her low status? Was her child the product of a rape? Was Aafke fooled into thinking that she would be married soon, and her lover left her or denied being the father? County records never give up these hidden mysteries, though questions linger 150 years later.
Without her mother or a family unit to take her in, Aafke relied on neighbors and friends, and the birth certificate of her son gives clues. Jantje Sebes Neijenjhuis Dam presided as Aafke’s midwife. Aafke subsequently named her newborn infant Thomas. Usually, first names were passed forward from the biological father or grandfather, but the baby’s naming appears to be indication of thanks or intent of recognizing Thomas Pieters Dam, her midwife’s husband. Less than a year after Thomas Kremer’s birth, Thomas and Jantje’s son Nanning married Aafke and adopted the young Thomas as his own. Questions rise up like a tide. Did Aafke know that she would soon marry Nanning, therefore naming her son after her future father in law? Was it a marriage of love or utility only? Aafke was 31 years old at the time of her marriage to Nanning, who was just 23. As previously stated, it was often a bare necessity that individuals wait for marriage until a proper income was established to raise a family, which could indicate why Aafke had waited. Was Nanning confident of his ability to provide at this time? Did he see a woman and child in need and fill it? We may assume that Nanning was secretly the father, but Dutch customs do not support this. Thomas is listed without a middle name on his birth certificate, a custom for illegitimate children in the Netherlands. If he had been Nanning’s biological son they would have quickly married as Tjarks and Jante had, and Thomas would have been given Nanning’s name. Additionally, Thomas’ physical birth certificate on file in Uithuizermeeden had haunting documentation that was hand-written in Dutch in the margin from 1874, pulling the observer back to that fateful moment: Nanning was taking Thomas on as his son and adopting him and giving him his last name, though he was not the biological father. Nanning took Aafke as his wife that year of the noted change on the certificate, when Thomas was not quite two years old. A year after their marriage they welcomed a daughter together that they appropriately named Jantje, recognizing both of their mothers.
Meanwhile, Willem Jans Allersma was also born in Uithuizermeeden, 1835. Menna Smit was born in the same village two years later. As children of the crop failure, their lives would have been one of poverty, difficulty, and hunger. One of the reasons for this was the population boom that went along with the rise in food costs, disease, and lack of food. Willem and Menna married in 1861, having a total of nine children over their marriage. Two of their daughters died in infancy, which was quite common as a result of poverty and disease, but it was also due to the fact that working families did not always breastfeed their children. Needing to care for multiple children and working jobs to gain a source of income, many women bottle fed their infants, leaving them with the infants’ young siblings for a time. Oftentimes, the bottles were made with little more than water, and the water was often unsanitary. Of course, sickness in a peasant family also meant that medical care was scarce.
Willem and Menna’s daughter Martje, nicknamed ‘Mattie’, was born in May of 1873, about a year after Thomas was born in the same village. The village population was small, in the few hundreds, and it is certain that the Dams and the Allersmas knew each other as they worked and lived close to one another. During Martje’s childhood her uncle made the trek to the United States to escape the eroding remnants of the old country, sending letters back to the family about the possibilities, opportunity, idealism, and American dream that awaited. Understandably, many in the Netherlands were practical and skeptic. To a people used to harsh conditions, work, and early death, it all sounded to good to be true.
Uithuizermeeden village witnessed a young marriage in May 1893, the usual month for marriages after the contract season of day laborers ended. Thomas Dam, at the age of 21, married 19 year old Mattie. He was trying to rise above his low station to better their young lives: he is registered as a shoemaker in the village, an artisan craftsman. One can imagine the kind of shoes he constructed: wooden farm clogs and leather work boots.
After only a couple weeks into their young, spontaneous marriage Thomas and Martje left the only village they knew and traveled 170 miles by train to Rotterdam, Netherlands to board as steerage passengers on a steam ship for New York. The rail station in Uithuizermeeden was being built at the time of their departure, so they would have taken a cart to the nearest station to journey to the dynamic and energetic city. Rotterdam’s population was over 200,000 in comparison to Uitheizermeeden’s hundreds. It was a huge metropolis; there were horse car trams, a bustling railway, a fish market, waterworks, and an art gallery. Thomas and Martje had probably heard about Rotterdam, but were still overwhelmed at the unimaginable commotion of the city. Everywhere they looked would have flashed signs of progress, industry, and innovation. Dressed in simple cotton and wool farm clothes from a remote hamlet, they looked out of place, though determination to partake in the benefits of this new world pushed them forward.
Martje’s uncle had settled in the middle west of the United States, writing about fortune and the big break they were seeking, if they were willing to work hard. Thomas, stifled and tired of stagnation in the small village of his birth due to his status, lack of education, and wealth, he signed a work contract with Kalamazoo Paper Company, Michigan to pay passage for his and Martje’s sail to the United States in June, 1893. It would be a momentous, life-altering journey of over four thousand miles including horse cart, railroad, and ship. They never saw their families again, each taking two meager bags for their excursion over the Atlantic in third class steerage, though they were optimistic for their future opportunity in a land that promised everything: steady work, food, housing, and a thick network of Dutch community in an up and coming American city. Their immigration would change the trajectory of their future children in ways unimaginable.
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Hoitink, Y. (2008, September 25). From Winterswijk to Wisconsin: Emigration from the Achterhoek to the United States in the nineteenth century. Retrieved from https://www.dutchgenealogy.nl/wpcontent/uploads/2011/06/FromWinterswijkToWisconsin.pdf
Paping, RFJ. (2012, November 22-23). Occupations and economic labor activities of nineteenth century Dutch women: limits and possibilities. Presented in Utrecht. Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/staff/r.f.j.paping/utrechtnov2012paping.pdf
Paping, R.F.J. (2013, August). Rural poor relief in the coastal Netherlands: from a ‘collective insurance’ to a ‘supplement-system’ (Groningen 1770-1860). Presented at Rural History Congress, Bern. Retrieved from http://www.ruralhistory2013.org/papers/1.3.1._Paping.pdf
Paping R.F.J. (2015). Dutch live-in farmhands and maids in the long 19th century: the decline and near disappearance of the lifecycle servant system for the rural lower class. Paper presented at 3rd Rural History Conference, Girona, Spain. Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/26660181/servantspaper.pdf
Swierenga, R.P. (1998, November 17). Place Mattered: The Social Geography of Dutch-American Immigration in the Nineteenth Century. Lecture sponsored by Calvin College Geography Department. Retrieved from http://www.swierenga.com/Calvin_lec.html
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